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October 2019
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Welcome To Thebes (Theatre Review)

Welcome to Thebes 7 for webThe National Theatre is one place I go to, with great expectations. I mean, really great expectations. In the last year and half, they have not disappointed me with their productions. That is not to say everything is perfect but they make sure you get value for your money and you leave the theatre with a sense of satisfaction. Earlier this year, they had the 14th Tale at the Cottesloe Theatre and what a blast that was. Last year, when they staged Wole Soyinka’s, Death and The Kings Horsemen, I was in awe of the performances, the stage and the very fact that they were on point! What was profoundly ironic about that production for me was the fact that a white brother directed it and did it so well. Give it up! Whosoever said white men could not dance or jump, be aware, they can do theatre and that more than compensates for the lack of ability to dance or jump. It gets better, they are also bringing Fela The Musical to London, later this year. If that is not icing on the cake, I have no idea what is in your books. However, this much is clear, the National Theatre is putting on performances for diverse audiences and that is worth acknowledging and applauding.

Without moving away from the purpose of this post, Welcome to Thebes, by Moira Bufffini, is the new production from the National and I dare say, they went all out with it. It is a theatre production of epic proportion and well worth the time you sit back and digest the action as it unfolds. If you want a dramatic opening, this play has it. If you want humour, it has that too and if you want en engaging play, ask no further.

A play which is heavily influenced by Greek Mythology and today’s muddled world of Politics, Welcome to Thebes, is the story of the Theban people and their leader Eurydice, as they recover from the ravaging effects of war and the ugliness that comes with it. Tim Hatley, who designed the set may not be the face of this production but his ability to depict how war can turn a once beautiful nation and palace to a heap of rubble is astounding. The stage instantly takes you into the world of  Thebes. In fact, you have no choice but to believe that you are seating in front of a house,  as the stage is filled with the supposedly ‘presidential palace,’ which is left in state of irreversible damage after Thebes is visited by war, who leaves her mark behind.

No opening is as dramatic as what Richard Eyre gives us in this play. Surprising and humorous, we are instantly thrown into this world of chaos as  Megaera (Madeline Appiah) and her fellow soldiers grace us with their comedic presence. Appiah gives us an idea of what it means to be a child soldier as Megaera delivers a monologue that left me remembering the various books by child soldiers written by those who survived their ordeal. A powerful monologue as she narrates how the soldiers invaded her community and the mayhem that came with them, yet, ironic when she talks about how the gun in her hand empowers and made her human again. “My politics began the day the soldiers came…I am all powerful, all fire, I am revenge Megaera; I am fury,” she says. A vivid and startling account of her experiences at the hand of the soldiers establishes for us what’s to come.

Welcome to Thebes 5 for webMove on from from Megaera and we meet the big political players in this minefield of ‘political boxers’ without the physical gloves as opposing sides struggle for power. Eurydice is the democratically elected leader of Thebes, a woman who needs the help of Thesus, leader of Athens to bring order and peace to her people but at what cost? Buffini in her writing waste no time to establish there is a struggle for the soul of Thebes by those who claim to have her best interest at heart. Theseus, who is is magnanimously portrayed by David Harewood, is a man with political and economic power, and can help change things but he too has his personal problems at home. Eurydice (Nikky Amuka-Bird) is new to politics but she is  learning the protocol of things on the job and soon figures out in order to get what she wants, she has to do what she needs to do. This is is not to suggest she knows it all, as pointed out by her ever serious and straight-talking foreign secretary, Aglaea, who cannot hide her opinions but can manage and maintain her sense of humour, while insulting those around her. Let’s not forget the blind man who tells them what their future holds even when he is not asked, and they are not so promising. Truth be told, each character in Welcome to Thebes has a story to tell, a story rooted in great loss and deep pain. The type therapy may not be able to resolve. How interesting that real wars do the same to its victims.

While Welcome to Thebes, is set in a fictitious country and there is no mention of Liberia at any point, the fact that Eurydice is a female leader, who is Africanised through her choice of clothing reminds me of  President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia. Her cabinet is made up of women in crucial positions of power, again, there are links to President Sirleaf and her first choice of appointees when she was elected president. But if anything stands out, which really brings it all home that Buffini has drawn from the experiences of the Liberian war, it is when one of her characters makes reference to the Liberian women, who had had enough and decided to fight for their children and their country, when they started their own war on those responsible for the atrocities in the land by staging a silent protest against the war. An event recorded in history and is today, the subject of the documentary, Pray The Devil back To Hell.

It is also interesting to see how Buffini draws parallels between Theseus and the western nations who go into war ravaged nations with the intent to help, yet they have their own agenda up their sleeves. It is a play not far from real life, it has the good and the manipulative but Buffini does not seek to preach at anyone or force anyone to right any wrong.  She simply makes you think about the bigger world and the consequences of decisions made by those in power. A point Eyre interprets with sensitivity and an adept understanding of his subject. It would be so much easier to write about the themes Buffini has drawn on in this play but war comes with many things, especially its ugliness, which hits you and of course, the hard job of rebuilding when the raging guns have been laid to rest. And that is what Buffini and Eyre have shown with this production.

Welcome to Thebes 11 for webWelcome to Thebes is a painful account of what war can do to a nation and its citizens. It is profoundly moving and evocative of the wars currently raging in the four corners of the world as it plays audience members inside the Olivier Theatre. Nevertheless, Welcome to Thebes is thought-provoking, beautifully crafted by Moira Buffini, designed with passion to bring the story alive by Hatley and a directorial triumph for Richard Eyre.

A brilliant company of actors, Chuck Iwuji as Prince Tydeus and Rakie Ayola as Pargeia, make  a fine mean couple, with individual aspirations for power but find a way to work together to achieve their goal. All in all, the company members can be serious, animated and humorous, each person brings something to this play, which completes it. It is a whole play and one I would say, make sure you see before it ends.

Welcome to Thebes is currently showing at the National Theatre until August.

Images: Nobby Clark

A –  Tracy  Ifeachor – Ismene, Nikki Amuka-Bird – Eurydice

B – Nikki Amuka-Bird – Eurydice, David Harewood – Theseus

C – Tracy  Ifeachor – Ismene, Zara Tempest Walters – Eunomia, Karlina Grace – Bia, Aicha Kossoka – Aglaea, Joy Richardson – Thalia


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